A class studying world religions at Northeast Middle School in Bristol, Connecticut, was slated to have a Muslim woman come and “dispel misconceptions” about Islam.
But then the threats started, the Hartford Courant reported, forcing the school to cancel the speech amid a wave of troubling emails and phone calls.
The school initially sent a letter home to parents letting them know that Annam Choudhry, who is Muslim, would speak at the social studies class on Nov. 22.
The letter said that Choudhry, who grew up in New York and lives in Connecticut, started an organization called YURSA, according to Fox61.
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“Their mission is to train Muslim women to inform others about the Islamic faith and to dispel misconceptions that are prevalent in today’s society,” the letter read. “This presentation will enrich our curriculum on world history.”
It wasn’t long until the teacher who sent the letter started receiving threatening calls and messages, prompting the school to cancel the speech, Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu told NBC Connecticut.
"I was made aware of it by one of our board of education commissioners who told me there were some security concerns due to threats being made at the school toward the teacher who was organizing the event," she said.
Superintendent Susan Moreau said the teacher “was getting phone calls and emails that were, in her words, threatening.”
According to the Courant, dozens of people complained on a local private Facebook page, Bristol Talks.
"Religion does not belong in public schools," one person wrote on the page, according to NBC.
Others agreed that the speech would muddy the lines between church and state.
"Well I don't think religion should be taught in schools anyways,” Michael Costello, a parent of a student at the school, said to WFSB. “I mean if kids want religion, let them get that at home. They don't need that at school.”
"I’m a total separation of church and state,” Reverend Joseph Jakum, who called the school about the issue, told WFSB. “I don't believe that any religion should be teaching their faith in the school. I don't believe Christianity should be taught as a faith in the school.
“As far as a historical aspect and cultural aspect, I have no problem with it, but the letter that went out to our parents stated that they were actually going to be sharing it looked like their faith.”
But Farhan Memon, chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, told the Courant that arguments about keeping religion out of schools don’t make sense in this circumstance — as the class was studying all religions in a secular manner.
“A world religion or social studies class in an appropriate place for someone to talk about what they are, what they believe and the difficulties they may have had,” he said. “People will say ‘we have a separation of state and church,’ but this wasn’t going to be performing an act of worship or endorsing a religion.”
And others thought that Choudhry’s speech would have sent a message of inclusion.
“How do we teach our children diversity and then go ahead and do something like this?” Dawn Chagnon, a Bristol resident, said to Fox61. “It makes for more ignorance of other religions and other cultures and other races, it’s not okay.”
Superintendent Moreau said she doesn’t want this incident to be the end of the discussion. Instead, she’s hoping to plan an event where Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu people could speak at a high school auditorium, where parents could join their children, the Courant reported.
Despite the controversy, Moreau said that the town of Bristol should not be judged as a whole because of the actions of a few.
“It is my hope that the opinions of a few Bristol residents are not seen as the opinion of the Bristol community,” Moreau said to CNN. “There was an outpouring of support for bringing a speaker in to support our curriculum, which includes religions of the world.”